A Dreamland

Posted on 15 June 2015

Cactus Flower, PeruCordillera Blanca DonkeyPath to Laguna ShallapCordillera Blance HorsesLaguna ShallapBehind Laguna Shallap

I am hungry for new scenery, for vastness. Huaraz and its surroundings provide. The Cordillera Blanca towering above, around. The green and rocky path. I sink in. I look around as if it’s a dreamland. Earth is full of dreamlands. Everyone can find a dreamland, different, widely different, from whence they come. My eyes just drink.

The Flood

Posted on 31 May 2015

Under a tree I sat, brow inevitably furrowed. My eyes felt red. I looked around at the greenery. It was not too cold, not too hot. Large flowers, and an avocado tree, were not far. I was in Kenya. But I was miserable, I seethed, I felt trapped in this place, in my skin. I picked at a piece of grass then threw it as far as I could.

Sexual harassment had, long ago, gotten very old for me. I would say I was used to it—the waiting to cross the street while men leaned out of a truck and hollered, the walking home from class briskly and hearing whistles despite my headphones, the shielding my face as men laughed, sticking cell phones in front of me to take my photo. And worse, the stories from others, whispered, whose invasion ran more deeply, more physically. The trepidation. But, of course, you never get used to it. You fill up and then you overflow.

I was overflowing.

I was in Kenya, and the only safe place was in my tiny room, locked. Walking with my male colleagues was better, but that didn’t end the catcalls. Walking alone was worse. I sat under the tree with the phone card I had just purchased from the village shop a ten-minute walk down the road. I was followed halfway home by a man who wouldn’t take no for an answer.

And people tell me I walk fast.

On the bus, a man moaned about my hair blowing in the wind and masturbated while no one said a thing. In crowds, men grabbed me, trying to draw me to them. Anywhere, men shouted at me. At work discussions, men would ask questions about me, about my age, to my male colleagues since women supposedly can’t answer for themselves. At work, I was sexually harassed by my boss, who would make lewd comments, who would grab my hand to shake it as is custom, but then would pull me closer to give me a slurpy kiss on the cheek. On the institute’s campus, I would act politely toward the men who worked with us, but then would be bombarded with creepy phone messages.

I was in Kenya, and this is when I started to feel as if I was becoming a bad person.

There was nothing I could do to protect myself, but projecting a defensive aura of rage helped. Scowling at all men helped. Walking as fast as I could, sunglasses on, keeping myself closed, never open, helped. I shielded myself from all the bad as best I could, but that meant I was also blocking the good.

Emanating waves of negative energy sucked me hollow. Good people like other people, right? They’re compassionate, right? They’re open, right? And I walked around hating half of all people as the best defense I had. Never, ever smile.

Of course, this story doesn’t end. I would run at home and trucks would follow me, would honk. I would step out of the door at my homestay in Peru, clothed in black, sunglasses on, head down, and the kisses and the deliciosas and the shouts of you fucking cunt I’m going to rape you would rain down. I would walk, holding hands with my boyfriend, and men would shout, shout, shout. And laugh.

I live and I walk and I look at things and I feel a man approach from behind and stop and repeat “hi hi hi hi” until I turn and tell him to go away, I clearly don’t want to talk. I sit outside on a conference call for work, notebook in my lap, and a man places himself in front of me, “hello beautiful,” standing standing standing there until I shoo him, still on the phone, still trying to work. I leave an event, I see a man leer at me and I know, I grab the pepper spray in my purse, enter my car and lock the door, and he peers down at me, having followed me there.

I hate them all.

I feel guilty. Maybe good people don’t hate. But I hate them all.

How to deflect? I try to live and I am assaulted. I absorb.

I overflow.

Hotel Hall in Kenya

The Gaps Between Us

Posted on 19 April 2015

There are some things, many things, I cannot wrap my mind around.

I had found myself in western Uganda. Yes, I hadn’t exactly planned this, but my internship work sent me. The same day I was told it would be good to visit the forestry college in Masindi district, I was on a bus to the region bordering Lake Albert and the DRC. In the dark, I was shown into a room, and left for myself until the morning. What appeared to be a flying worm buzzed near the light and I shivered, trying as hard as possible not to be squeamish but, failing, retreated under the covers beneath the mosquito net.

Morning came and I had no water with which to shower. By now, this was not a surprise nor, usually, an annoyance. It was an acceptance. I put on sunscreen and stepped out into the greenery to be swept away. Much of my time interning in East Africa passed thus: I let myself be carried along. There was no way for me to plan. It was hard to get information. It was trying, very trying sometimes, to understand what was even going on. So, I cultivated patience and an adventurous streak. Masindi district today? Alright, meet you for the bus this afternoon.

So, now I was on a bus with college students who had been in the area for a month. We were driving to a village to interview people who worked on a collaborative forest management project. Here’s the very simplistic gist of it. This district is very rural, and very poor. It also is home to refugees from the DRC, who fled the decades-long conflict there. The economy is largely based on agriculture. There are beautiful forests around too, with precious trees like mahogany, and chimpanzees who live in the green shadows. There are forest products worth money, and they are often illegally and unsustainably harvested. This community had formed a group to protect the forest, border planting around it, patrolling it, and even creating apiaries.

Some of the college students chatted with me, and one in particular stuck with me, very kindly so, I must say. I never quite grasped a full understanding of what was going on around me between the heavily accented English and the other languages circling around during the meeting. She translated generally what was happening. I sat back and just watched.

Girl and Baby in Masindi District

We made it to a farm and met with a group of people, and again, another girl latched herself to me—this time a villager, not a student. She was very sweet and quite taken with my name, repeating it to me in a sing-song manner: Leah, Leah. We fumbled words between us, talking as best we good. She held a baby on her back. Where’s yours, she asked. I have none. But how old are you? At the time, we were about the same age: she, 20, I, 21. Do you have brothers and sisters, she asked. Yes, two. So few? Will you take my baby to London, she asked. I can’t. I don’t live in London. I’m sorry.

That’s as far as we got before language and experience built an insurmountable wall, marking the end of our hour together. I had to go with the students anyway. I knew I would never see her again. Her life would trail off in a vastly, vastly different way from mine. In a way that I simply cannot, cannot understand. She doesn’t get my life. I don’t get hers. I’m sorry, sister.

That afternoon, I went to the market with one of the teachers. I wanted to leave as soon as we arrived. I stepped into the aisle and a man grabbed me, hard. I wrenched away, furious, and continued walking, not looking, not making eye contact. I was scared. I didn’t understand well how the market functioned. I didn’t understand how I, white as can be, could navigate through the bustle without being handled again. I didn’t understand how I could even look at a blanket of goods, spread on the ground, covered in items I did not need nor could carry, without sparking false hope in vendors’ eyes. I did not know how to communicate anything well. I shied away. Eventually, we left.

The next day I was taken to Budongo forest, riding on a truck that was picking up food for the students at the college. We chugged down the road known as the Royal Mile when I saw a person run across the way. No, a chimpanzee. I got out of the truck, nervously, and with my camera walked slowly in front. Chimps ran around beside the road, the younger ones curious, the older ones displaying, banging on trees. They were very large. I avoided looking directly at them, which could provoke. I buzzed with a nervous thrill. While the chimps’ strength was unmistakable even from afar—they could crush me—here I was, walking with chimps, remembering my childhood idol Jane Goodall. The chimps followed for awhile, and then went back to their own activities.

The Royal Mile, Budongo Forest Chimp, Budongo Forest

I was dropped at a field station, managed by the Jane Goodall Institute, hosting primatologists, where I spoke with a couple of Brits who were working there. They fed me some tea and I overstayed, the truck waiting for me outside, for I was clinging to conversation, to a situation, that I could easily grasp, that my mind bent around no problem.

But back in the truck, driving along, we passed by huts, children whose malnutrition was apparent playing outside. I shrunk away from the window sometimes as eyes searched me out. I’m sorry, I really, really, don’t understand. Back at the college grounds, we passed by a woman who had earlier been looking for the clinic, lying in the grass, just lying there. I pointed her out to the teacher: tell someone, we should get the doctor, can you call someone? Oh, he told me, she just has malaria and the doctor will come.

I just had to drift along, trying to understand, but failing.

Masindi Hills, Uganda

Eyes Open, Mouth Closed

Posted on 6 April 2015

“You should go to Húsavík,” my impromptu host in Akureyri told me. “I went whale watching there.” Clara handed over some brochures she had kept. Alright, why not? We got up early to go to Akureyri’s geothermal baths and then I rushed to the bus station. Luckily, I realized I was at the wrong station just in time—and the right one was just across the street. I settled into the minibus between my neighbors and we sped off into the morning.

Riding a bus in Iceland is never boring. The landscape is enormous and beautiful and the weather overhead is rapidly shifting. The bus pulled over and we squeezed in even tighter to let on a father and son. Even though the bus was already full, we weren’t going to make them wait hours for the next. Hugging ourselves inward, we smiled at each other and settled back as best as we could in the tight space.

 

Húsavík's Harbor

 

It was still early when the bus dropped us off in Húsavík. It wasn’t too difficult to find my way around in the town numbering just over 2,000. Yellow flags flapped in the wind declaring, whale watching! I went and bought a ticket and dinked around by myself until the ship would depart. A line of mist hung over the harbor and it was hard not to stare. I began to pile on more layers. Clara had bequeathed me a chunky and overly large red sweater that she had found in her apartment when she moved in. Heeding her warnings about the cold on the sea, I tugged it on over my T-shirt, long-sleeved shirt, and scarf, and then awkwardly fasted my jacket on top of the bulk.

Joining the group on the ship, I realized I was probably the only one by myself. There were families, there were couples, there were friends, and there was me. I didn’t care. I ran across the boat along with everyone else, side-to-side, glimpsing dolphins, minke whales, and my beloved puffins. After awhile, the boat began to make its way back to harbor and we were served hot chocolate. By that time, I was shivering horridly, despite my puffy layers. Eventually I had to succumb and put on the ship overalls. I willed the boat to get off the cold sea more quickly now that we’d seen the sights.

Immediately after disembarking I went hunting for food because I needed to warm up. I found a place selling French fries out of a window. Those are warm. And indeed, I was able to gradually strip off some of my layers. After finishing my meal, I began to wander around town, my backpack in tow. I stopped in a bakery and bought a kleina, a pastry consisting of fried dough. So, yum.

 

House in Húsavík

 

When traveling, I seem to vacillate from one end of the socialization scale to the other, in ways that may put others on edge. I had gone from staying with three different strangers in a row, all in tight quarters (including a wet tent), to wandering around by myself. I don’t mind; I like both.

I walked through the back streets up to the main road along the harbor. I stood outside of the Phallus Museum (I kid you not. It has since moved to Reykjavík.), looking at the stone and wood statues alluding to obvious things in lieu of paying for a ticket to actually get inside. I stopped by the tourist information center to dash off a few quick emails (“I’m in Húsavík; I hadn’t planned to be here but I am; it’s nice; back to Reykjavík in the evening to catch my flight out”). I wandered up a hill and explored the graveyard overlooking town and the sea.

It was time to catch my bus. This one was a tad more roomy. I exercised my vocal cords again by chatting with the man next to me who wondered what I had been up to. Wandering and whale watching. Yes, alone. Yes, it was fun.

I contemplated the scenery out of the window, which is what I had been doing all day really, sans pane. I like to contemplate. It can be easier when you’re alone. Meet people: learn. Step back: absorb. My time in Iceland was about to end. I let it all filter through me in silence.

 

Húsavík

Looking at…

Posted on 3 April 2015

“During these travels, I’ve done a lot of things that, upon the re-telling, cause people to look at me aghast. Hitchhiking? Yup. Staying with strangers? Yup. Hiking in incredibly rural mountains, sans guide? Yup. Not booking a place to stay ahead of time? Yup. Sleeping in bus stations? Yup. And I’ve been to places that cause people to shrink back: Burundi, the deadly mines of Potosí, even Siberia. But you know, many of these experiences have been the most rewarding and revealing.

The next comment I get is, “wow, you’re incredibly brave!” Here’s the thing: I’m not. Here’s the extra thing: I’m far from it; I’m anxious. As in, clinically anxious. There are things that scare me that shouldn’t, and I have the capacity to worry myself literally crazy. And it’s not as if my travels are absent of worries. But I’ve realized that the things many people worry about are misguided. So I go on and do my travel thing.”


I am now writing a travel advice column over at The Beautiful Wild Magazine! Check out the intro and the answer to my first reader question, on traveling with student debt. If you’re curious about how I’ve done what I’ve done after reading any posts on here, ask away! I’ll do my best to dispense good advice in my articles over there.

Me at Pastoruri

Walking Deep

Posted on 22 March 2015

Hour after hour dripped by under the sun, and perhaps Antonia and I were wondering why we didn’t just take a tour after all. Striking it out by ourselves at an early hour from Arequipa to Colca Canyon, we took a bus to Chivay, planning on connecting to Cabanaconde shortly after. “Oh yes, you’ll be able to do that,” the ticket seller told us, but in Spanish. Oh nope, we weren’t able! After wandering through the small town and being pointed in direction after direction, we were resigned to the fact that the only bus to Cabanaconde was the one coming from Arequipa a few hours later, the one we should have taken. Disheartened, we wandered to the road out of town, wondering if a vehicle might come by that we could hitch a ride with. A man came by and struck up conversation. You won’t get to Cabanaconde this way, he said, but then, under the bright sky, we talked about movies, mines, and our home countries. My Spanish was blossoming. Some policemen dropped by to see what was going on; I suppose two blondes hanging by the side of the road for hours isn’t the most common sight. The cops were friendly too, and after further chats, Antonia and I circled back to the bus station, our lost hours filled.

Buses in Peru plod along. We drove along narrow cliff roads, stopping almost as often as we moved. We stopped to let cars pass by in their skinny lanes. We halted to let people off and on, at the most seemingly-random places. But Antonia and I joined the random crowd, for we didn’t ride to Cabanaconde itself. We got off at the San Miguel viewpoint overlooking Colca Canyon. We peered into its depths. That’s where we were going—to the bottom of the world’s second deepest canyon, rivaled only by the nearby Cotahuasi.

Colca Cactus

Of course, as we exited the bus it began to drizzle, and then solidified into proper rain. Antonia and I scrambled down the muddying path for hours, talking all the while. We had met a couple of months before in Cusco, where we had both been living. We left town around the same time, traveled around, and planned it so our paths would cross one last time. Thus we slid-stepped down the side of the canyon together, with vague directions copied into a notebook in my bag.

We walked just the two of us. We didn’t take a tour group because they’re expensive. We didn’t because the schedules are set, and not by us. We didn’t because we read about the hike online and surmised we could do it ourselves, scribbled notes in hand. Walk from one village to another by taking the path on the right side and you’ll get there.

As dusk—or was it just the rainy mass of fog?—settled in, we came across a woman who told us we were “strong walkers” and led us to her place, which doubled as a hostel. At this later point in my travels I had to count every dollar that left my hands, and I handed a few over to her, something like four, for a room and a warm meal. We stood in her kitchen with her, her husband, and their baby while she cooked for us and told us about her family. She has a daughter studying at university in Germany. Her other children are with relatives in Arequipa so they can attend better schools. There is no cell reception in the canyon where they live so every now and then, she treks up and out (for there are no roads into the depths) to talk to her daughter abroad and her other children a few hours’ away. Spaghetti was served, we gratefully ate, and then retreated under the covers in our dark room, hiding from the damp.

Flowers in Colca Canyon

The sun came early. It was drying off. We explored the grounds a bit, admiring the great dewy flowers, before heading on. We had our directions and, really, there weren’t many choices as to where to go, but even so, we asked every person along the way if we were on the correct path to the next village. Bemused, yes.

And so Antonia and I hiked along one side of the canyon, crossed a bridge over the river flowing through the middle, and then ascended along the other side. Clouds hid the sky far overhead. It was as if the world had walls.

Malata Dogs Colca Oasis

After a few hours we arrived at Sangalle, the oasis, stopping point or destination for pretty much all tours to the canyon. In fact, many tours simply descend the switchbacks from Cabanaconde, visit the oasis, then turn around climb up again, missing the length of the canyon. Antonia and I lingered by the pool for a while but I’m no pool sitter and got antsy. I need to walk. We snacked and then began to tackle the switchbacks out of the canyon. We were told it would take about three-and-a-half hours.

So, staring at our feet, we plodded upward and upward, zig-zagging our way. We stopped for breaks and so we could take our eyes off the ground safely to look around, standing still, warding off vertigo. We’d look out over the canyon, and then look at its face in front of us. And then we’d continue huffing up. It took us under three hours and we were pleased with ourselves, strong walkers indeed!

Hiking out of Colca

The hiking wasn’t done until we made our way into Cabanaconde though, which we did. We asked around to find the hostel whose name we had written down and whose website had in fact help plan our little trek. It had begun to drizzle again and we gladly cleaned and warmed up after we checked in, huddling in our beds for a while before emerging for dinner at their restaurant. An oven sat in the back and we sat at the table near it, snacking and playing with the restaurant cats.

The next morning we caught a bus back to Arequipa, and then Antonia and I went on our separate ways. Doing the canyon by ourselves wasn’t so hard. I thought about what meant most to me on the hike. Antonia’s company, the view, and the kind, hospitable hostel lady. I would never have stayed with her if we hadn’t plodded down ourselves. My few dollars would not have reached the villages lining the canyon, but instead wads would have been sent back to Arequipa. We had to do some upfront planning, yes, but tours need to be shopped for too. I’d rather have my own schedule and delve into what’s there on its own, not set up for me. I suppose I love that the world doesn’t exist for me but instead, I for it. I walk along, alternating between thoughts and interaction with reality, bared.

Bridge in Colca Edge of Colca

A Loud Silence

Posted on 4 March 2015

Olympic MountainsPines in CloudsPine and DropletsLine of PinesMountainous LayersMountain PeaceMountain Sunset

The earth is bigger than we are. Nature is mightier than we are.

When you’re on the ridge with your partner, though, doesn’t your love feel huge? Even though you’re dwarfed by everything around, somehow, your lives together feel more important. They swell. All that is delicate inside shapes us stronger. My chest expanded with my breath and more.

The clouds rolled in and over us.

The sky was hidden and then shone gold.

What can I say? What can I say?

Mountains speak louder than words.

Steam Dark, Steam Light, Mushrooms, Night

Posted on 23 February 2015

The air was beginning to shimmer a warm golden grey as we pulled up to the summer home in Hämeenlinna. It sits by a lake, of course. Between the house and the lake are apple trees and a sauna. The light wrapped us, holding on a little longer, and then it departed. By this hour, dinner had been made, and we ate. And then, flashlights in hand, we walked down to the sauna and disrobed.

 

Dock, Lake, Finland

 

The changing room exuded the familiar sauna smell of wood, birch, damp. I stacked my clothes in a little pile. The lack of electricity emboldened me somewhat: we were girls and guys together. Despite being no sauna newbie, this was fresh to me. I had been camping in Siberia, then bumming around on couches in the Baltic countries; hadn’t touched a razor in a month. But we were all enveloped in darkness. Skin brushed skin. I relaxed. Löyly, steam, washed over me. It snuck into my nostrils, my throat, down into my chest. I dripped.

Emerging into the chilly, so crisp, night, I carefully padded my way over the grass, down to the dock, into the lake. The cold water forced the air out of me. I submerged myself, scrambled up the ladder, back onto the dock, back onto a bench in a sauna, bodies all around. Repeat. Repeat. And a final rinse under the cold showerhead outside. My skin flushed; I felt fresh; I felt relaxed.

 

Sauna in Hämeenlinna

The sun brushed our cheeks, soft and cool. We gathered round for the rules of “the Olympics.” The second of three tasks: find the three best mushrooms. Off we tore. Scrambling down forested hills, dirt dislodged, coating my ankles. Running, eyes fixed on the forest floor, looking as keenly as I could. No mushrooms. Back onto the road, up a hill: here are some. Are the pink ones safe? No? Only a couple of tatti for me. The whistle, tearing back up the driveway, panting. Here are my meager findings. But I’m smiling. Because hurtling through the forest, eyeing the details, is exhilaration.

Later, in a calmer manner, we returned to the woods. The pink mushrooms actually are edible after boiling, I learned. We strolled and stooped slightly apart from each other, gathering. My basket filled with pinks and one beautiful megatatti. I balanced my can on the uneven ground, gathered the few mushrooms I sighted, took a sip, stood. Simple, meditative, pleasure.

 

Elina with Pink Mushrooms

 


It’s still light, and it’s back to the sauna. Everyone can see everyone, but it feels just normal, just natural. I’m probably the only one even thinking about nakedness—simply that it’s a thing, not that it’s weird—from my outsider’s perspective. In the dim, steamy light of the sauna I learn some new words, ettu peppu and taka peppu. Front butt and back butt. Each peppu is designated as to fit more people on the sauna bench. We sweat on each other. Some of the guys hum the dwarf song from the Hobbit, and then practice the chorus for System of a Down’s Vicinity of Obscenity. It would feel surreal if it didn’t feel so right.

 

Beautiful Finnish Lake

 

Again, I pad through the grass and vault into the lake. Then I stand in front of the sauna, sipping a cider and chatting with whoever else is taking their break, steam rising from our skin. Then back into the löyly, drifting toward the humming of the men, hovering in front of the tiered benches in the cooler air before I am labeled as an ettu or taka peppu and squeeze in.

Steam. Jump. Cool. Repeat.

I feel calm; I feel free.


I must be glowing after the sauna, for I feel more alive. We all change into formal dinner clothes. I even put on lipstick. It’s time for dinner, the centerpiece of this entire weekend, which is a crayfish party, a Swedish-Finn tradition. The main platter is a spiral of red claws. Elina and I enjoy our vegetarian alternative of artichokes. We pass around rye bread with a mushroom salad made from our day’s foragings. There are toasts. After the toasts come songs. Many are in Swedish and I fumble through the lyric book that is passed to me. After songs come shots.

 

Crayfish Platter

 

After dinner comes dancing, to the most eclectic selection. I don’t even remember what was playing apart from when I delayed heading to bed because I simply couldn’t miss Start Wearing Purple or Dancing Lasha Tumbai. But I remember the dancing. Sometimes I sat and watched as the clock crept well past midnight, regaining my strength. Most times I bopped along with everyone else. On occasion I was swept off my feet—literally—by far better dancers than I. We laughed, we spun. We were silly, we were crazy. We were glad.

Finland! Things to Do.

Posted on 19 February 2015

Dock on a Lake, Finland

 

I love Finland for many reasons, many of which relate back to some of my favorite Finnish activities. I’m lucky to have spent long periods of time living with Finnish friends who have introduced me to all sorts of Finnish customs. When you visit Finland, make sure to try the following activities in order to enhance your bound-to-be-wonderful experience!

Read More…


This is the last article in a series I was asked to write for Pink Pangea as their Country Expert on Finland. But don’t worry–just because I’m done with this series, I’m not done with writing about Finland! I’m never done with Finland.

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